Elections In Israel

Avigdor Lieberman's Road To The Top

Brent E. Sasley on Avigdor Lieberman's party list and ambitions to become Israel's Prime Minister

Bernat Armangue / AP Photo

Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (and it is his party) held its primary on Tuesday. And by primary, I mean Lieberman decided who shall leave and who shall not, who was worthy and who was not. The outcome is not all that surprising, and reinforces what we already know about Lieberman’s ambitions: that he sees himself taking up residence at Beit Aghion—the Prime Minister's residence. His decisions on the party list are meant to pave the way to there.

In second place is Yair Shamir, son of former Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Yair joined the party only in May, without having to work his way through the ranks. He carries considerable business experience but also the name of his hardline father. In third place is Uzi Landau, who came to the party after a long career in Likud. That the Likud name is being swallowed up in these two cases by Yisrael Beiteinu is telling.

Lieberman made other changes to the party. He dropped Stas Meseznikov and Anastasia Michaeli, two members of the Knesset who brought unwanted and embarrassing attention to the functioning of the party and the authority of its leader. This was not a surprise. What was unexpected was the sudden drop of his deputy in the Foreign Ministry, Danny Ayalon—sudden because Ayalon himself was given no advance warning.

There are different theories floating around to explain Ayalon’s exit. Some wonder if it was because of Ayalon’s rude treatment of the Turkish ambassador to Israel back in 2010. A more common explanation seems to be that Lieberman tired of Ayalon’s constant leaks to the media.

Either way, the underlying reason should be clear: Lieberman will brook no dissent and no distractions from his goal.

But despite having engineered the joint ticket with Likud, which puts him at the very center of the likely new government, Lieberman still faces a difficult road ahead. No Prime Minister of Israel has ever come from a party that wasn’t Labor or Likud. Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert did become premiers while head of Kadima, but that was a much larger, short-term political vehicle that was made up primarily of former Likudniks.

Yisrael Beiteinu only has 15 seats in the current Knesset, after having received only 11.7 percent of the popular vote. It’s never represented a broad and deep enough spectrum of Israeli society. It’s not clear, then, that other parties in the system would support it as the core of a government coalition.

That means Lieberman would have to move into Likud and capture the top spot from within. But he’ll have to struggle against Likudniks who don’t like him, don’t like his secular-oriented agenda, see him as an outsider, or want to become the leader themselves. Indeed, the joint electoral list he constructed with Benjamin Netanyahu already has many Likud members “seething,” as they contend his followers were given places on the list higher up than expected, and at the expense of Likud members.

It remains to be seen whether, as the challenges become more difficult, Lieberman will be able to maneuver around or storm over them as he has done until now. Much will depend on the outcome of the January 22 election and how Netanyahu perceives the line-up of willing coalition partners.

Because Likud-Beiteinu is a joint list, rather than a direct merger between the two parties, if Netanyahu comes to see him as a liability or even a threat, he could replace Lieberman in government with other parties. Alternately, he could see Lieberman as a necessary balance against either the far-right parties or the centrist ones.

For now, Netanyahu and Lieberman still think they need each other. So long as Lieberman doesn’t directly challenge Netanyahu, their ambitions will converge and we can expect the two to be around for awhile longer.